“The Last Pilot,” by Benjamin Johncock. (Courtesy of Picador)
THE LAST PILOT

By Benjamin Johncock

Picador. 304 pp. $26

Last week’s disastrous launch of the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket offered a fiery reminder that space remains a distant, final frontier.

Who could have guessed our progress toward the stars would be so slow and problematic? In the 1960s, when my dad worked as an engineer on the Asset program for McDonnell, Mom and I used to sit on Cocoa Beach and watch the missile launches. Life in outer space was imminent, and the Tang was delicious. While Dave Scott and Jim Irwin tore around the lunar surface in the “moon buggy,” I played with my Mattel “Major Matt Mason Space Station.” Its Crawler Deluxe Action was possibly the most thrilling thing I have ever experienced.

But decades later, that great leap for mankind feels like our last small step. Kids don’t dream about becoming astronauts anymore, and our best minds are busy perfecting apps to share cat photos.

This melancholy nostalgia drew me into orbit around Benjamin Johncock’s debut novel, “The Last Pilot.” Although he’s a young writer in England, Johncock re-creates the early days of the U.S. space program like someone who lived through them. His story opens in 1947 when a hot-shot Air Corps captain named Jim Harrison is on his way to becoming the fastest man in the world — or another bloody smear on the Mojave Desert. He’s flying the X-1: basically a rocket launched from the belly of an airborne B-29 bomber, which is fuel-injected craziness, but Jim and his buddies aren’t fools. They relax each night at a bar decorated with photos of their dead colleagues. “There are no mistakes,” Jim says coolly, “just bad pilots.” During one particularly gory 36-week stretch, they lost 62 men.

Flying through these pages, you’ll recall that dynamic era when a mix of physical science and political anxiety propelled the United States to unprecedented speeds. “Someone’s gonna do it eventually,” a pilot’s wife says. “Better that it’s us. Old allies aren’t lookin so friendly anymore.” So, they beat on, pushing against the limits of their rockets and their bodies, wondering what exactly might happen next. In one cameo, Chuck Yeager notes that some engineers worry that “at the speed of sound, g-forces become infinite.”

Scientists and test pilots get a taste of infinite pressure when President Kennedy commits America to “landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth.” Johncock reminds us that the challenges of that audacious project were not merely technical. With the evolution of NASA and a new breed of heroes called “astronauts” comes the rapid rise of modern marketing and image control. Brave test pilots who had worked largely in secret are suddenly expected to play the role of national celebrities with all the lucrative perks and strict constraints that entails.

But if these guys have the right stuff, they also have personal lives that burn as dangerously, and that tension makes “The Last Pilot” hypnotic. Yes, you’ll catch some flak like this: “The system was designed to maintain a limit cycle oscillation at the servoactuator loop’s natural frequency.” But that’s nothing to worry about; it’s only a touch of engineering verisimilitude. Johncock is a lot more interested in the physics of emotion, the unpredictable interplay of a husband and wife who love each other but have few ways to articulate their desires and fears.

Jim is a lot more comfortable soaring along at Mach 1 than he is sitting stock still in his living room with his wife, Grace. And why not? In the clear blue yonder, he’s up against just a few deadly variables, but back on Earth, all is murkiness. And that’s the true heart of “The Last Pilot.” Jim and Grace are mulling along in quiet despair over their inability to have children when they suddenly learn that Grace is pregnant. What they can’t imagine, though, is how quickly their exhilaration can turn to grief, the kind of boundless sorrow that makes once-loving parents toxic to each other.

That family crisis — inspired by a tragedy suffered by Neil Armstrong and his wife — would crash in a fireball of sentimentality were it not for Johncock’s extraordinary discipline. Not only has he stripped his narrative down to sleek, aerodynamic paragraphs, but he tells much of this story in clipped dialogue that only suggests the pain swelling beneath the lines. Quoting passages of these staccato exchanges would make them sound sterile and colorless, but, trust me, in context the effect is supercharged Hemingway at 70,000 feet.

In the end, it’s the atmosphere that keeps a historical novel aloft — particularly when many of us can remember that history personally — and Johncock’s greatest accomplishment here may be his fidelity to the era. He captures the way international politics played out across the sky and cast a shadow over private lives. Jim’s wife has no words to express how miserable she is playacting the role of an astro-wife for Life magazine, and Jim has no way to express the grief that’s driving him mad.

In the end, he discovers that what’s most treacherous isn’t reaching for the stars, but for someone you love.

 is the editor of Book World. You can follow him @RonCharles.

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THE LAST PILOT

By Benjamin Johncock

Picador. 304 pp. $26